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Donnie Brasco - Film Review

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Donnie Brasco Donnie Brasco
Reviewed by: Dr. "Doc" McPhearson
Directed by Mike Newell

Written by Paul Attanasio (based on the novel "Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia" by Joseph D. Pistone)


The film opens in a small coffee shop, where a young jeweler disrespects an aging hitman. The young man is Donnie Brasco (Johnny Depp); the older fella, Lefty Ruggiero (Al Pacino). And though they don't exactly start off on the right foot, what begins as a slight confrontation slowly transforms into one of the oddest cinematic friendships I have ever witnessed.

Based on a memoir of sorts, and inspired by true events, "Donnie Brasco" tells the story of Joseph D. Pistone, an FBI agent who takes up the profile of Brasco in order to infiltrate the Brooklyn mafia crime network. Unfortunately, what sounds good on paper ends up taking much more of a personal toll on Pistone than he probably ever imagined. His children give him the silent treatment, his wife feels neglected and lonesome ("I pretend I'm a widow," she confesses to him), and his own fellow agents are more concerned with gathering information than they are with pulling him out of harm's way.

So when Lefty arrives into Pistone's life, and folds him into the warmth of his embrace, it's not surprising at all that the young man might actually enjoy being under the wings of this weathered dragon. Acting as a teacher of sorts, Lefty shows 'Brasco' the ropes of organized crime, from the chain-of-command to the difference between "friend of mine" and "friend of ours."

The real trouble starts when some people start getting whacked, and others start getting promoted. For example: Brasco and Lefty's boss, Sonny Black (played relentlessly by Michael Madsen), is one of the first men to be "upped," and though most men only dream of being pushed up the food chain, Sonny realizes that this higher position also comes with a financial staple, adding to his duties a monthly payment of $50,000 to the guy above him. A new job, a new burden, and he needs a new medium through which to make that kind of money. Donnie pitches him some ideas, among them a club in Florida that he thinks might give the group a new base to work from. But when that falls through, Black and his followers have no choice but to suspect an informant in their outfit. And Donnie... well, no doubt he starts to do more than sweat.

This is a story set in a world in which men kill one another not for revenge, but because they're told to. "There are rules to be followed," Lefty says after pulling a job on a crew member. "He's a rat because Sonny says he's a rat." And in this framework, men are no longer living breathing beings, but rather tools through which to make money, and occasionally clean house. At one point, Lefty even says quite plainly, "I'm just a spock on a wheel." Yeah, Brasco thinks, you and me both, pal.

I have read, as I'm sure many of you have as well, numerous reviews in which the critics subtitle this film "The Good-Fellas Companion Piece." After all, both dealt with organized crime families, and both had protagonists that, as a result of their actions, ended up in the witness protection program. However, even with that linearism in mind, I find myself disagreeing with such an oversimplification. Whereas Scorsese showed the nitty-gritty of the network's dealings, director Mike Newell sets the betrayal and brutality into the background, and instead brings to the forefront our leading men and the bond that they so delicately share. Sure, there are murders, and a plenty-bloody saw session (you'll see what I mean) afterwards; yet it is still unarguable that "Brasco" is the far more intimate of the two.

I'll admit, there is one thing that both films have in common: They both of them definitely deserve more than one viewing.

8 out of 10
Doc McPhearson

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